Skip to main content

Holy Cow: Bovine Idioms

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Sayings with cows/bull idioms

Sayings with cows/bull idioms

Cow Idioms

It’s more than 10,000 years since cattle were domesticated, so it’s not surprising that they crop up in plenty of proverbs, sayings, and adages.

“Take the Bull by the Horns.”

Meaning: To deal with a problem head-on.

Some say this phrase comes out of the American rodeo practice of steer wrestling. It’s one thing to tackle a steer weighing around 500 pounds but quite another to deal with a fully grown bull tipping the scales at up to 2,000 pounds.

Grabbing a mature bull by the horns is going to end badly, and not for the bull.

As a trivial addendum, in 1962 there was an advertisement in which a winsome young lady in everyday going-out-into-the-fields attire is standing with her hand on the horn of a bull. The caption reads “I dreamed I took the bull by the horns … in my Maidenform bra.”

Interesting ad

Interesting ad

“Until the Cows Come Home.”

Meaning: At some indefinite time in the future.

The origin of this statement appears to be mysterious, as it does with many idioms. Most experts agree that it first showed up in a play The Scornful Lady of 1616 vintage. “Kiss ‘till the Cow come home, kiss close, kiss close knaves.” But why? Theories abound:

  • Cows amble slowly to the milking shed
  • When their milk production drops they go to the slaughterhouse and never come home
  • Unlike horses that go astray, cows don’t find their way home

Take your pick.

The final word goes to Groucho Marx in Duck Soup: “I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought I'd rather dance with the cows until you come home.”

“Like a Red Rag to a Bull.”

Meaning: an action intended to cause anger.

You have to dig back to 1724 for the origin of this saying. Cato’s Letters were a series of essays written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in one of which the following appears “Foxes are trapann’d [trapped] by Traces, Pheasants by a red Rag, and other Birds by a Whistle; and the same is true of Mankind.”

Later, vipers were said to be distracted by a red rag.

It wasn’t until 1873 that the mighty bull arrived in the idiom. However, the whole thing is―ahem―bullshit. Bulls are colour blind so a green or blue cloth would do the job just as well.

“Hit the Bullseye.”

Meaning: to be completely right about something.

It also means hitting the centre of a target in archery or darts, but why do they call it the bull’s eye? An extensive internet search comes up with that same irritating “origin uncertain.”

The most popular theory is that in the Middle Ages English archers practiced their craft by firing arrows at a bull’s skull. The challenge was to lodge an arrow in the eye socket.

Here comes a grammar lesson from The Grammarist, “Originally, bull’s eye was spelled with a possessive noun and is still seen that way sometimes. However, the Oxford English Dictionary only lists the one-word spelling, bullseye.

(And, spell-check just flagged bullseye as an error). Ha!

“All Hat and no Cattle.”

Meaning: Someone with superficial charm but no substance.

You get the image of the dude rancher wearing a gigantic Stetson but with not a clue how to raise cattle; boastful as all get out but with no achievements.

Everyone’s favourite TV villain of the 1970s, J.R. Ewing of Dallas, gets unearned credit for this idiom. Yes, it comes out of Texas, but as with so many of these phrases its birth is obscure, as is the case with many synonyms:

  • All icing, no cake
  • All hammer, no nail
  • All sizzle, no steak
  • All foam, no beer

“Bull Market.”

Meaning: the value of stocks is rising, a bear market is when stock prices are falling.

Yet another idiom whose origin is murky, but Investopedia takes a stab at an explanation. Both animals attack their adversaries in different ways: “… a bull will thrust its horns up into the air, while a bear will swipe down. These actions were then related metaphorically to the movement of a market: if the trend was up, it was considered a bull market; if the trend was down, it was a bear market.”

A second opinion, please.

Merriam-Webster says the bear came first and hails from an 18th-century proverb that it is unwise “to sell the bear’s skin before one has caught the bear.” Placing a value on something that doesn’t yet exist suggests the seller believes the price will go down, so the bear became associated with a downward market.

The dictionary publisher says the bull “seems to have been chosen as a fitting alter ego to the bear.”

"Bull in a China Shop."

Meaning: to be aggressive and, in the process, smash things.


Meaning: rubbish, nonsense, advertising, and political platforms.

One of the major poets of the 20th century gets credit for this word. Yes, none other than T.S. Elliot wrote a poem under the title "The Triumph of Bullshit." He submitted it for publication in a British literary journal in 1915 and it was rejected on the grounds it was a bit too vulgar for the audience.

The Guardian comments that “Probably the word ‘bullshit’ was imported from the poet’s native U.S., but so far no one has found ‘bullshit’ in print as a single word before 1915.”

Ha ha

Ha ha

“Sacred Cows.”

Meaning: an institution, belief, or tradition that cannot be changed.

This comes from the Hindu belief that cows are reincarnated humans and are, therefore, holy.

The now-defunct New York Herald gets the accolade for turning this into a simile. In 1890, the paper complained a project should not be worshipped “as a sort of sacred cow.”

In 1909, The Galveston Daily News went all in, turned the simile into an idiom and described a project as a “sacred cow” rather than simply being like one.

Bonus Factoids

E-Cow-Nomics is a branch of the dismal science that explains “isms” in bovine terms:

  • Socialism―You have two cows and you give one to your neighbour.
  • Communism―You have two cows, the government takes them both and gives you a pint of milk once a week.
  • Corporatism―You have two cows. You sell one and force the other to produce four times the milk. Then, you call in a consultant to find out why the cow died.
  • Surrealism―You have two rhinoceroses and the government orders you to take accordion lessons.
  • Nazism―You have two cows. The government decides they are the wrong colour and shoots them and you.
  • Bilateralism―You are a Canadian farmer with two cows. They graze north of the border with the United States and are milked south of the border.
  • “As awkward as a cow on roller skates.” Meaning: off-balance, clumsy. This phrase cannot pre-date 1863, which was when one James Plimpton of Massachusetts invented the four-wheeled roller skate.
  • According to the BBC program Quite Interesting, “A cow with a name will produce 450 more pints of milk a year than one without a name.”
Were you familiar will all of these cow/bull idioms?

Were you familiar will all of these cow/bull idioms?


  • The Phrase Finder
  • “Where Did the Bull and Bear Market Get Their Names?” Investopedia, May 26, 2017.
  • “The History of ‘Bull’ and ‘Bear’ Markets.” Merriam-Webster, undated.
  • “TS Eliot: the Poet who Conquered the World, 50 Years on.” Robert Crawford, The Guardian, January 10, 2015.
  • “Bullseye or Bull’s Eye.” The Grammarist, undated.
  • English Language & Usage.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 05, 2017:

Idioms we can use. Very interesting. Thanks for the explanations.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on December 03, 2017:

I love the cow idioms. I like this type of article, it is fun! I thought "bull in a china shop" meant that no matter how hard you try not to, your going to smash everything to pieces. Or, lacking a certain amount of refinement. LOL, idioms can mean many things depending on where you are raised. :)

S Maree on December 03, 2017:

I have always loved cows. Now I love them more! Fun & enlightening!